Divine love in the letter to the Romans

In die Skriflig / In Luce Verbi
ISSN: (Online) 2305-0853, (Print) 1018-6441
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Original Research
Divine love in the letter to the Romans
Pieter G.R. de Villiers1
Faculty of Theology,
University of the Free State,
South Africa
Corresponding author:
Pieter de Villiers,
[email protected]
Received: 09 Mar. 2016
Accepted: 28 June 2016
Published: 25 Nov. 2016
How to cite this article:
De Villiers, P.G.R., 2016,
‘Divine love in the letter to
the Romans’, In die Skriflig
50(2), a2118. http://dx.doi.
© 2016. The Author(s).
Licensee: AOSIS. This work
is licensed under the
Creative Commons
Attribution License.
This article investigates divine love in the letter to the Romans from the perspective of love as
a key motif in spirituality and in light of spiritual hermeneutics. After a short introduction
about the significance of love as a spiritual motif, the article motivates why the notion of divine
love is important for understanding the letter to Romans. It challenges existing interpretations
of love in contemporary research on Romans that associates it mostly with the relationship
between people, neglecting the significant passages in Romans in which love is first and
foremost associated with the character and actions of God. In the rest of the article four essential
characteristics of divine love is investigated, with attention to its originary, intimate, powerful
and self-giving nature.1
Love from a spiritual perspective
Spirituality, as the Dutch expert, Waaijman, has indicated, has to do with a divine-human
relationship that encompasses an on-going process of transformation.2 He (Waaijman 2002:
316–351) has further pointed out that an investigation of Scripture reveals that there are four key
motifs that characterise this on-going, transformational relationship and, by implication, also of
Spirituality. They are awe or fear of God (godliness), holiness, mercy and perfection. These
central motifs are closely related and mutually determine each other. In some cases they are also
linked with the notion of love. Awe of God is, for example, ‘intrinsically connected’ with love
(Waaijman 2002:318). They determine each other in the sense that love prevents a servile fear of
God, whilst fear of God must find its fulfilment in love of God. As Waaijman (2002:316) notes,
‘The fear of God takes shape in a reverent life and is perfected in a reverent love’ and (2002:318),
‘The fear of God leads to love for God’. From Waaijman’s description of awe it follows that the
divine relationship of God with humanity originates in and is driven by and results in love. It
can be accepted that the other key words of mercy, holiness and perfection are also closely
related to love.
The significance of love for Spirituality is illustrated most clearly when Waaijman focuses on the
transformative nature of the divine-human relationship. For Waaijman, the relation between God
and humanity is qualified in a decisive manner as a loving relationship. He (Waaijman 2002:455)
develops this insight when he discusses transformation as a key notion in Spirituality that
represents the very heart of it. He notes how contemporary authors frequently use ‘the word
“transformation” precisely in places where they seek to conceptualize spirituality in its essence’.
He then analyses the notion in more depth by listing five of its forms. The five, reflecting the ‘inner
logic of the spiritual way’, are transformation in creation (that is from non-being to being in God),
in re-creation (that is, from being malformed to being re-formed in God’s recreation of man), in
conformity (that is, to a transformation model that introduces a person into the divine reality), in
love and in glory.
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With these observations, Waaijman (2002:455) explains ‘transformation’ in terms of its ‘richly
varied semantic field’ that has to do with ‘form, malform, reform, be conformed and transform’.
His first three descriptions of transformation in creation, re-creation and conformity neatly reflect
this semantic field of formation. Rather unexpected, though, is Waaijman’s following two
descriptions of transformation in love and glory, because their names seem unrelated to the
‘formation’ elements in the semantic field. They draw attention to themselves and to the striking
fact that, of all possible words and themes in a religious context, the two descriptions are selected
to qualify transformation. First of all, Waaijman notes that love and glory are closely intertwined:
Transformation in love is, first of all, about the soul being led into God, but it is also about God
1.With this article I wish to acknowledge the significant contribution of Prof. Fika Janse van Rensburg over a long period of time to the
discipline of New Testament Studies in South Africa.
2.Compare the major work of Waaijman (2002:316). This influential publication in the field of Spirituality contains hermeneutical insights
that are valuable for biblical scholarship.
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taking up abode in the soul. Love is about the intimate nature
of transformation that reflects union and mutuality (cf. further
below). Transformation in glory seems to be different from
transformation in love in so far as it has to do with what awaits
humanity after this life. What waits is, however, illuminated
by and in continuity with transformation in love. For Waaijman
both the fourth and fifth forms of transformation have to do
with love, but it is also about its loving outcomes and ultimate
fulfilment. Love remains with humanity without end and
characterises human existence in its completeness and fullness.
To be transformed in glory is to be and remain in the everlasting
condition of love.
Other dimensions of transformative love illuminate its special
place in Spirituality, namely love has a divine character. The
transformation in love finds its origins in God’s love. The
transformation in love cannot be effected by someone
(Waaijman 2002:472): Humanity is ‘overcome by the activity
of the fathomless love of God’ (Waaijman 2002:470–471,
referring to Ruusbroec). This, in turn, illustrates the power of
divine love. Divine love for humanity is given without
boundaries and restrictions. This, in turn, has further
transformative effects: When God touches someone in love, it
transforms that person to let go of him- or herself and also to
go out in love. In being with the other, those who become part
of the loving relationship give themselves completely up to
the Other. The one who is loved, is transformed to share or
participate in an intimate union of love with the divine. The
one who is loved, is transformed to become like the one who
loves. ‘Love produces such likeness in this transformation of
lovers that one can say each is the other and both are one’
(Waaijman 2002:469). Mutuality, likeness and intimacy
characterise the divine-human relationship. Ultimately,
though, love is about a fully integrated and meaningful
existence in love. Love represents the highest state attainable
in life and brings total fulfilment and tranquillity. ‘The
peculiar nature of transformation in love is that love prompts
God and man to rest completely in each other’ (Waaijman
2002:469, quoting John of the Cross). Love is about God
residing in the soul. ‘When the soul is transformed in the
Beloved, the Beloved dwells in the soul which he opens up
more deeply than the soul can open itself up’ (Waaijman
2002:472–474, esp. p. 473).
This discussion of Waaijman (2002:316) flows from the heart of
Spirituality, because it draws on profound thoughts on love
from some major Spirituality authors like Bernard of Clairvaux,
Rumi, Ruusbroec, John of the Cross and the author of the Cloud
of Unknowing. But these reflections also have clear biblical
roots, drawing on the biblical book, Song of Songs, that was a
prominent source to a significant number of mystics to express
their understanding of love. This book is part of a reception
history of love in Spirituality texts. This history has special
relevance and value for the interpretation of Biblical texts.
To value this insight, one needs to consider why and how
biblical texts influenced lived spirituality within Christianity
over many centuries. Spiritual authors understood and
Original Research
appropriated these texts as their sacred traditions in a special
manner. Waaijman (2002:690) described how their approach
to the Bible included thoughts on how one detaches oneself
from everyday things to entrust oneself to the text; how one
realises the inherent thrust and power of the text; how one
penetrates the text and learns to savour its deeper meaning;
how one’s understanding has continuing impact in the
practice of life.
An analysis of this approach, also found in lectio divina as a
spiritual practice, reveals some typical characteristics and
commonalities that can be used to design a model for
spiritual hermeneutics. Waaijman, who investigated the
praxis of spiritual reading from a phenomenological
perspective, systematised his findings under the rubric of
‘spiritual hermeneutics’ (De Villiers 2008:155–168; 2010:
181–204; Waaijman 2002:689–773). Although his discussion
is explanatory of the praxis of spiritual readings rather
than prescriptive for interpreting texts, it helps to create
sensitivity for and awareness of the spiritual dimensions
of biblical hermeneutics. Such hermeneutics can function
in a heuristic manner to help biblical scholars recognise
unrecognised or neglected aspects of biblical passages.
At the same time examples of concrete spiritual readings
will provide helpful information to enrich a hermeneutical
model for analysing the spiritual nature of biblical texts.
As such it feeds into the general field of hermeneutics
that benefits from textual studies and explains what is at
stake in the process of understanding. This implies that a
careful investigation in spiritual readings of love in
Spirituality texts and in the Bible has more than mere
exegetical value.
Spiritual hermeneutics as a comprehensive field of study
reflects on the relationship of the reader with a spiritual text.
This relationship can be described in terms of some key
material issues. The study of love in biblical texts provides an
example of such material insights: it will show how biblical
texts incorporated love in their message about the divinehuman relationship and how they interpreted salvific events
in terms of love. Love is, however, not an abstract term. It is a
dynamical notion, reflecting what the text says about love
and how it speaks about love in a loving manner. Scripture
reflects attempts to understand the impact of the divine
intervention on its readers, both in terms of what they
experience, and how they experience it. Waaijman (2002)
quotes Augustine who wrote about love as:
the leading principle in the interpretation of Scripture as well as
the fruit of the reading process as such. Hence love is not only the
alpha and omega of the process of interpretation but, additionally,
the aimed-for effect of the entire reading process. (p. 727)
The validity of these remarks will be borne out by more
studies on love, not only in the reception history of Spirituality
authors, but also by studying the notion of love in biblical
texts. This article seeks to contribute to this enterprise by
focusing on Paul’s understanding of love in the letter to the
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Romans is a good choice as a source for reflecting on the
spiritual nature of a biblical text. Paul’s letter to the Romans
represents a key moment in his spiritual journey at which
he, after his ministry in Asia, wishes to enlist the support
of believers in Rome, a significant group in early
Christianity, for his on-going mission in the West. In this
letter, one encounters Paul as he reflects on the divinehuman relationship in terms of his ministry and the gospel.
The letter represents a process of discernment: In the text
one recognises a meditative Paul who is taking stock of his
own faith experiences in light of his sacred traditions and
his encounter with the exalted Christ in order to reflect on
the way forward. In this reflection his perspective on love
has a programmatic role and place as will be illustrated
An investigation of Romans could be affected negatively by
its reception history. As is well-known, the letter to the
Romans has been associated, in the first instance, with the
notion of justification by faith. Where the theme of love has
been discussed in research on Romans, it tended to be
associated with the human response to the divine act of
justification in Christ with special attention to Romans 13–14.
It is mostly interpreted from an ethical perspective and
therefore as the consequence or outworking of justification
by faith.3 A good example is to be found in Dunn’s
comprehensive theology of the Pauline letters. He extensively
discusses the important role of love in Pauline ethics, but has
a few references to other important dimensions of love
(Dunn 2006:658–661). This happens often in discussion about
love in the New Testament. The understanding of love is
further impeded by the diverse interpretations of love, but
also by remarks of some who regard love as a relatively
unimportant notion in the New Testament (De Villiers 2008,
As a result of this kind of focus on love in Pauline ethics,
some important dimensions of love do not always receive the
attention they deserve. It is therefore especially opportune to
investigate love in Romans from a more comprehensive
perspective. These relate to love as the intimate union in love
that takes shape when believers are touched by a loving God.
Although this union of love has consequences for believers,
as is indicated by the golden rule in Romans 12–13, this
article focuses on the deeper, more foundational dynamics of
love as the origin and face of the divine relationship with
humanity. The insights developed in the field of Spirituality,
especially in the work of Waaijman, will be used in a heuristic
manner in this analysis.
3.Compare Küng (2004:79–84) who’s discussion of Barth’s view of love focuses on love
as a human response to the act of justification. Also compare Sujiin Pak
(2008:122–144) for the diverse ways in which the letter to Romans was read by
theologians and on page 127–128 for the relatively few references of Luther,
Melanchton and Calvin to the motif of love in Romans 5:6–11.
4.Compare Hays (1996:200–203) who argues in some instances that the paucity of
references to love in some biblical texts and the meaninglessness of love in
contemporary discourses indicate that love cannot be a focal image, although he
comments on page 202 that Paul put love to a ‘powerful theological’ use. Söding
(1992; 1995) provides an overview of various publications by New Testament
scholars on love in various biblical books, but it is striking how many of these focus
on love of the neighbour. In a recent publication on love, Wischmeyer (2015:15)
emphasises that love is more than an ethical notion. She writes extensively about
love forming an ethical perspective.
Original Research
References to love in Romans
Several aspects of love illustrate its special place in the letter
to the Romans. It is striking, for example, that one of the very
first references to love is found at the beginning of the letter,
thereby setting the tone for what is to follow. Romans is the
only Pauline letter in which he addresses the readers in the
seminal salutation as all those ‘who are loved by God’5 (πᾶσιν
τοῖς … ἀγαπητοῖς θεοῦ; Rm 1:7),6 rather than with the more
common names such as ‘church’, ‘saints’, ‘believers’ or
‘brothers’ found in his other letters (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Gl
1:2; Eph 1:1; Col 1:2; 1 Th 1:1; 2 Th 1:1).7 His readers in Rome
are therefore delineated as those who are in a loving
relationship with God. The remark is important, not only
because of its position in the letter, but also because of the
rhetorical function of these opening remarks. Schlier (1977:33)
has particularly referred to Romans 1:1–7 as a summary of
Paul’s gospel so that Paul’s characterisation of them as the
beloved of God is associated with the essence of the gospel he
proclaimed.8 Love of God for humanity belongs, according to
this programmatic statement, to the heart of the gospel.
With this remark, Paul foregrounds the motif of divine love
for humanity. This is underlined when he reminds believers
in the rest of Romans 1:7 that love characterises their identity:
they are ‘called to be saints’.9 Paul further confirms the loving
relationship when he uses the familial, loving description of
‘Father’ for God at the end of Romans 1:7.10 It is a word that
describes relationships that are close, tender and intimate.
Addressing the believers in this way in the salutation should
be understood in a wider sense within the opening chapters
(Rm 1–3) where Paul speaks of people’s hateful attitudes and
in Romans 1:31 refers particularly to their lack of love. Paul
thus links unbelief to a degenerate lifestyle driven by hatred
and characterised by a lack of love. Paul considers the
identity of the Romans in terms of the loving, kind and
compassionate relationship of the divine with them and its
transformational impact. His letter spells out to them how
the divine love incorporates them into a community in which
they share certain privileges and responsibilities with others
5.Lohse (2003:69) and Dunn (1988:19) do not comment on the unusual description
of the Romans as the beloved. Dunn adds that the adjective indicates a ‘more
established relation’ that is characteristically Jewish and thus distinguishes it from
a general pagan description of people as loved by God.
6.Paul is clear when he speaks about humanity’s love for God as is illustrated by
Romans 8:28.
7.Schlier (1977:31) draws attention to the more explicit way of describing believers
as loved by God in 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13 and Colossians 3:12.
These references are not found in the salutations of the letters.
8.Schlier (1977:33) does not develop the motif of love in these comments on the
meaning of the prologue.
9.Love and calling are also linked in Romans 8:28.
10.According to Dunn (1988:25) ‘Christians are now embraced within God’s fatherly
care hitherto most fully expressed in reference to Israel’. The notion of Father has
become controversial as a result of gender studies and its critique of patriarchy
thereby raising consciousness for the problem of male language in the Bible and
the way in which it may impede spiritual experiences. See however, HamertonKelly (1979:81) for the description of God as Father. He writes that this goes back
to Jesus’ experience of an intimate relationship with God that made ‘father’ the
appropriate symbol of his existence (Also see Aasgaard (2004:244, 311) who
describes siblingship as ‘a fundamental perspective, noting that “clearly [Paul]
wants to create an atmosphere of love” in connection with this letter’. Balla
(2015:210), quoting Lane, links such familial language with intimacy and
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who are loved by God.11 It is the love of God and their
resultant life of love that distinguish them from an existence
without God.
In light of these opening remarks, it comes as no surprise to
discover that the letter refers to love in at least 15 other places
(Rm 5:5, 8; 8:28, 35, 37, 39; 9:13; 12:9–10; 13:8, 10; 14:15; 15:30).
What is also important is that Paul refers to it at seminal
points in the unfolding argument. It has been pointed out
above that scholarly discussions of love in Romans often
focus mostly on its ethical use in chapters 12–13, even though
the repeated references reveal that love is mentioned more
often in Romans 5–8 than in the later parts. Of special
importance is that love is mostly associated with the divine
in these earlier parts. When, in the heart of the letter
(Rm 8:28–39), Paul speaks about the life through the Spirit
and the expectation of the future glory, he ends with an
extensive passage on love, arguing that the divine love works
for the good of those whom God loves (v. 28). He concludes
this powerful section again with remarks about God who
loved humanity (Rm 8:37) and that this love is so powerful
and enduring that nothing will separate humanity from it
(v. 38–39). After an intricate argument about the future of
Israel (Rm 9–11), Paul resumes his reflection on love. It is only
in Romans 12–13 that the emphasis is more on love as the
hallmark of the believing lifestyle. The above overview
shows that Paul considers love from a much wider theological
perspective than merely the ethical and that he characterises
the spiritual identity of the faith community in terms of
God’s love for them.
These explicit references to love are not the only ones in the
letter to the Romans. Often analyses of love in Romans, and,
for that matter, in the rest of the New Testament, fail to
account for the linguistic insight that words do not have
meaning, but meaning is represented by words (Louw &
Nida 1988:288–296). The centrality of love in the Pauline
thought is even more striking when one considers that love is
depicted not only by the conventional words for love in his
letters, but especially from other words belonging to the
semantic field of love.12 The central place of love in his letters
stands out even more when Louw and Nida’s semantic field
of love, affection and compassion is taken as a guideline.13 An
example of one such designation is the notion of ‘brothers’
that is prominent in the Pauline letters.14 It is not possible to
trace the general use of this term in the Pauline letters here,
11.Compare Hays (1996:196) for the importance of community in the sphere of moral
concern. His remarks are, mutatis mutandis, also true for theology and spirituality
and, for that matter, for love in the letter to the Romans (cf. further below).
12.Romans 12:10, for example, uses φιλαδελφίᾳ as word for love. Love is, as has been
pointed out briefly above, also better understood when it is compared with the
semantic field in which the lack of or the contrast to love is expressed. This happens
when Paul speaks of those people who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rm
1:18) by depicting them through various words as unintelligent, faithless,
implacable and unmerciful (e.g. Rm 1:31). Among these words is the description
that they are without natural affection (ἀστόργους) – that also moots the notion of
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but in his careful study of siblingship in Paul, Aasgaard
(2004) aptly observes that:
Above all … the sibling relationship was associated with love:
siblings were expected to display love towards one another …
Thus, more than other family relationships, the sibling relation
was thought to be distinguished by mutual love. (p. 309)
It is also worthwhile to note Aasgaard’s remark (2004) that
Paul, in agreement with his social context:
alludes again and again to ideas of love, and exhorts his coChristians to attitudes and actions of love towards one another,
which, as noted, involved both emotions and practical
obligations. (cf. for example pp. 309 and 311)
The impact of this observation becomes clear when one
considers that Paul uses ‘brothers’ as a term of affection at
least 18 times in Romans (1:13; 7:1, 4; 8:12, 29; 9:3; 10:1; 11:25;
12:1; 14:10 (2x), 13, 15, 21; 15:14–15, 30; 16:17).15 Given the fact
that Paul speaks of God as a Father who loves believers, it
becomes clear how he regards the faith community in terms
of a loving group related to each other in an intimate way as
a family called into existence by a loving God. Familial terms
that express loving relationships in the faith community find
their most significant expression in Romans 8:14–17 where
Paul refers to those who are led by the Spirit as children of
God and who can cry, ‘Abba, Father’. Consequently, believers
are not fearful, because the Spirit testifies with their spirit
that they are God’s children.
Love is regarded in both these cases as an essential element of
relationships in which Christians live. Having been touched
by God in love, they are constantly in a process of growing
deeper into this love and of learning how it transforms not
only them in their relationship with God, but also in their
relationships with others.
The originary nature of love
The striking use of love in Romans raises the question about
its meaning in the letter. Love is not regarded in an abstract
manner as a norm or value, but is about the foundational
action of God in establishing a relationship with humanity
that restores them in the image of God and that motivates,
inspires and characterises them to a loving relationship with
others. What believers are, what they do and how they relate
to others, mirror what God is and does, and how God relates
to others. It is a divine quality of God, reflecting an essential
characteristic of God as is explained in Romans 5:8 by the
reference to God’s ‘own’ love that he demonstrates in that
Christ died for people. God is loving in nature.16
Paul does not speculate about this divine love merely and
only as an aspect of God’s character, but writes mostly about
its relational character. It is, as Romans 5:8 stresses, a love ‘for
13.Hays’ remarks (1996:200–203) that love is not a unifying image in the New
Testament, should be tested in terms of this insight.
15.Beloved or (beloved) brothers for believers are well-known designations in the
Pauline tradition (cf. e.g. 1 Cor 10:14; 15:58; Phlp 4:1; 2 Cor 7:1; 12:19; Phlp 2:12;
1 Th 1:4; Rm 1:7, 13; 7:1; 8:12; 10:1; 11:25; 12:1; 15:40; cf. also 1 Tm 6:2).
14.This has also been illustrated by the remarks of Luther, quoted above, in which he
speaks of the kindness and gentleness of God in Romans 5. Not only other words,
but also actions and expressions can be indicative of love.
16.Dunn (1988:256) finds that the expression can mean that God demonstrated Gods’
own love ‘to us’ (with emphasis on God’s own love) or that God demonstrated
God’s love ‘for us’, that is, for believers.
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us’ and therefore about the divine consciousness of humanity,
of relating to and caring for them in a concrete and visible
Paul expressly notes that the loving relationship originates
with God. God is, in the words of Romans 1:7 and 8:37, the
One who ‘loved us’.17 That humanity receives this love as a
divine gift is implied in Romans 1–3 where Paul portrayed
the human condition without God as lacking love (cf. the
discussion above). His remark that people are justified (Rm
5:9), because God loved and reached out to them even while
they were sinners (v. 8) confirms this. The divine ‘touch’ of
humanity (Waaijman 2002:316) sets in motion, but also
sustains the divine-human relationship. In Romans 8:29 Paul
notes that God works for the good of those who love him.
Paul carefully avoids any perception that it is the human love
for God that merits the good outcomes by adding the phrase
‘who have been called according to God’s purpose’. It is the
calling of God, as it is expressed in the divine grace that saves
and protects (cf. Lohse 2003:252). All these emphasises what
Waaijman (2002:316) observes about love in general: ‘The
transformation in love can in no way be effected by the soul
The originary nature of divine love is further confirmed by
Paul’s remark in Romans 5:5 that the love of God18 is poured
out through the Spirit.19 Paul underscores this when he adds
that the Holy Spirit is also a gift from God (Rm 5:5). Elsewhere
Paul simply writes about ‘the love of the Spirit’ (cf. Col 1:8),
and in Romans 15:30 he calls upon the believers through ‘our
Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit’20 to
strive with him in prayers for himself. The believing
community is in the dispensation of the Spirit that is
characterised by love. With this remark, Romans continues
Paul’s use of the contrasting spheres of the Spirit and the
flesh that are also found in Galatians 5. This dispensation is a
time and a sphere of love. Paul thereby depicts the origins of
love in the divine action, but he also underlines that God
sustains the on-going presence of love in the community
through the Spirit. The Spirit lives in them in the form of
Paul emphasises the spiritual and divine nature of love in
Romans 15. He wants to inform the community that God, the
lover of humanity, is deeply committed to the relationship
17.The language of love in this verse is overflowing as Paul’s use of the hupercompound shows (cf. Dunn 1988:506).
Original Research
with humanity. God will be present in Paul’s ministry in
Spain (Rm 15:28) among unbelievers (v. 16). He appeals to
them in the name of ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘the love of
the Spirit’ to become supporters of this ministry (Rm 15:30).
His appeal to them to support his ministry is ultimately a
loving request of God in Christ.22 This concluding appeal in
Romans 15:30 to the Roman community to support Paul’s
ministry reminds one of the opening remarks in which he
addressed them as beloved of God (Rm 1:7). In this way the
motif of love forms a ring composition in the book as a whole
that further underlines its importance. The deepest common
bond between Paul and the community is thus linked with
the divine love for them all. Love brought their community
into existence, inspires them, unites them and brings them to
support one another in promoting God’s work and in
proclaiming through his ministry the divine love to others.
The intimate nature of love
Paul approaches his relational understanding of love from
two perspectives. On the one hand, he observes that
everything can be conquered through ‘him who loved us’
(Rm 8:27): God, through the Holy Spirit, resides in love for
humanity. This passage, however, also reveals the other side
of the picture: God works for the good of those ‘who love
God’ (Rm 8:28; τοῖς ἀγαπῶσιν τὸν θεὸν). The accusative form
indicates that the love of people for God is under discussion.
The passage as a whole therefore illustrates mutuality
according to which the one loves the other as the other loves
him or her. There is movement in love from God to humanity
and from humanity towards God.
Love has another special quality. Waaijman remarks
(2002:474) about mutuality that ‘The two love movements
interpenetrate and open up the space of intimacy’ (cf. Col
1:8). This intimacy is also found in Paul’s remark about the
gift of love through the Holy Spirit. The love of God is,
according to Romans 5:5, poured out ‘in our hearts’ as the
innermost being of humanity.23 The intimacy transforms
humanity to mirror the image of God. The residing of the
Spirit in the heart determines the divine-human relationship
so that humanity acts like God who love in self-surrender.
When believers act lovingly, they act in accordance with their
identity as a believing community who live the image of God
as the loving, self-giving God (cf. further below).
A powerful love
19.The link between the Spirit and love is not unique to Romans. But whilst Paul
briefly lists love as the first of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, he speaks
more extensively of the relationship between love and the Spirit in Romans 5:5.
Lohse (2003:168) draws attention to the unusual image of pouring out God’s love.
He explains that it is the result of the link between the gift of love with the
outpouring of the Spirit as described in Joel 3:1; Acts 2:17 and 10:45.
The bond of love between God and believers is so intimate
that it cannot be broken. The love of God powerfully defies
all threats and dangers: when Paul completes his long
passage in Romans 8:39 about the loving justification of
humanity, he discusses how believers are united in the love
of God that is in Christ. The reference to the divine love is
20.Lohse (2003:401) reads it, with many others, as a subjective genitive: love is given
by the Spirit (cf. also Barrett 1962:279).
22.Schlier (1977:438) writes some salient remarks about the function of love in this
21.For the concentrated presentation of a number of images, compare Wilckens
(1978:292–293). He refers, for example, to grace that is nothing other than the
power of the divine love. At the same time the grace is linked with righteousness.
Righteousness consists of the divine grace, because it has become identical with
the divine love.
23.Compare Galatians 2:19–20 where Paul, using traditional christological statements,
once again linked with familial language, writes in formulaic, solemn manner about
God ‘sending out’ the Spirit of ‘his Son into our hearts’ (cf. also Gl 3:3, 5–6). Betz
(1979:210) explains the ‘traditional idea’ of the Spirit in the human heart as ‘The
heart was considered the organ responsible for the control of the will’.
18.For this phrase, compare Wilckens (1978:293). He emphasises that it comprises a
subjective genitive.
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part of a highly charged and intense passage about the divine
commitment to believers. In it, Paul discusses the salvific
actions of God in which God acts on behalf of creation and
humanity. Paul’s readers, as those who love God (Rm 8:28),
thus ‘know’ that in all things God works for their good.24 Paul
mentioned this knowing throughout the passage (Rm 8:22
and 28). The culmination is found in Romans 8:38–39 where
Paul writes that he is ‘convinced’ that nothing will separate
men and women from the love of God. It is a knowledge that
speaks of inner conviction, nurtured by the experience of the
divine love. For him the bond with Christ’s love is him so
strong that nothing can separate believers from it. This
reference to the overpowering nature of divine love creates
an innermost feeling of certitude, of being loved, of resting in
a powerful, loving relationship that will weather all storms.
Paul’s powerful language in Romans 8, with its remarkable
language of love and certitude, is strong and intense. It
illustrates the power of the experience of love and its ability
to bring the beloved to complete certitude that nothing can
destroy the power of the divine love. Dunn likens the tone of
the passage to the majestic chords of a symphony (Dunn
1988:512).25 It speaks of God who acts powerfully in many
ways. God is for us (Rm 8:31); God did not spare his Son
(v. 32); God has chosen (v. 33) and has justified (v. 33) people.
He then refers to Christ’s death, resurrection and intercession
(Rm 8:34) before he makes his last remark: ‘Who shall
separate us from the love of Christ?’ Dunn (1988:512)
observes that this remark is like the voice of a soloist that
rings above even the crescendo of the final chorus as a soaring
note of faith. For Paul, the unity with Christ in love has major
implications for the lived experience of believers. It is a love
that is indestructible, even in the face of all the nameless
forces that threaten the Creator’s work and purpose. The
result is Paul’s doxology that reflects an intense experience of
peace, of joy and of celebration in and of the divine love that
endures and overcomes all threats. Believers ‘know’ and
have the inner awareness that love remains forever.
The power of love and the fact that nothing can separate
humanity from the love of God, take on a special meaning in
another, equally remarkable passage. Romans 11:28 also
speaks of the resting, secure and irrevocable nature of love.
This verse is part of a complicated discussion of the
relationship between God and the people of Israel. Paul ends
this passage with his pronouncement that he does not want
his audience to be ignorant ‘of this mystery’ (Rm 11:25). Paul
explains it further to his readers: they should not be conceited
about their salvation through faith. Israel too will be saved
because of God’s covenant with them (Rm 11:26–27; Is
59:20–21; 27:9; Jr 31:33–34). The people of Israel may be
enemies of the gospel, but they remain loved by God as far as
24.Lohse (2003:251) refers to many similar pronouncements in texts of late Antiquity,
but underlines that Paul allocates to it a special place. Of special relevance is that
God works for the good of humanity in all things. The context suggests that this
refers to eschatological salvation.
25.Lohse (2003:260–261) refers to the passage as a ‘doxologischen Lobpreis’
[doxological praise] and the ‘triumphierende Gewißheit, der die Apostel hervorhebt,
in einer klangvollen liturgischen Wendung’ [triumphant certainty that the apostle
emphasises in a sonorous liturgical phrase].
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election is concerned (κατὰ δὲ τὴν ἐκλογὴν ἀγαπητοὶ διὰ τοὺς
πατέρας). They too will ultimately experience the divine
mercy (Rm 11:30–32). One could say here that not even their
hostility to the gospel will separate them from the love of
God. As Wilckens (1978:258) notes, Auch als Gottes Feinde
bleiben die Juden Gottes Geliebte [Also as enemies of God the
Jews remain beloved of God] (cf. Rm 9:5). The divine
relationship is not given only to the undeserving and the
sinners, but remains a gift even to those who continue in their
opposition to this love. This pronouncement is followed in
Romans 11:29 by the remarks that ‘God’s gifts and his call are
irrevocable’. The certitude and indestructible nature of the
divine love are hereby underlined. So powerful is this love
that it cannot be undone by opposition to God. This
pronouncement reminds one of Romans 12:14 where Paul
asks his readers to bless those that persecute them. Blessing,
as an act of love, is in this way not determined by the actions
of the other, but is expressed to others despite of their actions.
The self-giving nature of love
Closely linked with the preceding remarks, is the fact that the
divine love is inextricably connected with Christ, as is
expressed in Romans 5:8, ‘But God demonstrates his own
love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for
us’ and in Romans 8:39: the love of God is in ‘Christ Jesus our
Lord’. The latter reference follows after Romans 8:32 where
Paul speaks of God who ‘did not spare his own Son, but gave
him up for us all’. In Romans 8:34 the death of Christ is again
mentioned, followed in the next verse by the first reference to
the love of Christ (Rm 8:35).
Believers are called to be conformed to the likeness of God’s
Son (Rm 8:29), which implies that they too should be selfgiving in their love. The nature of this love is thus
characterised as self-giving. This is expressed in Romans
12:10 where Paul calls on his readers to ‘be devoted to one
another in brotherly love’.
Paul’s intriguing remark in Romans 12:1–2 is equally
informative: having discussed God’s mercy in the previous
chapters (1–11), he asks believers, by the mercy of God, to
offer their bodies as living sacrifices.26 Here the notion of
transformation is relevant. Believers must be transformed by
the renewing of their mind and must find God’s will. The
living sacrifice and the renewal of the mind are seen in the
ethical lifestyle of the community. The language reminds one
of the Christological nature of love, spelt out in Romans 5:8,
where there is also a reference to self-giving.27 To sacrifice
oneself is to act lovingly towards others, and later, in Romans
12:2–13:14, he explains in greater depth what the living
sacrifice is that is holy and pleasing to God, and that is a spiritual
act of worship. In obeying the law of love (Rm 13:8–10),
human beings emulate God’s character and actions, but they
also worship God. Sacrificial service is part of a journey in
26.Compate Wilckens (1978:406) for a discussion of the many interpretations of this
27.Compare the discussion in Schlier (1977:350–358).
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love which means that one shows love concretely toward the
brethren (Rm 12:9–13) and even toward enemies and
outsiders (v. 14–21). Following God’s actions in the sacrifice
of the Son, the faith community experiences more of the
meaning of love and stands in celebration before the God of
love. In loving others, the community is strengthened in love
by being brought into the loving presence of the divine. Even
their love for others is ultimately about loving God. In this
way the love of God for humanity returns to God through
serving the community of believers and humanity in general.
There remarks reaffirm the notion of transformation and
qualifies it as a transformation in conformity: in Waaijman’s
words, ‘God informs the soul with his grace and conforms it
to himself’ (Waaijman 2002:472).28 Therefore, believers exist
to conform to the loving image of God in their relationship
with others.29 There is an intimate relationship between God
and humanity, embedded in and flowing forth from their
inner being so that the one who is loved reflects the identity
of the one who loves. ‘When God inhabits the soul and has
transformed it in himself, it becomes transparent to God’
(Waaijman 2002:473).
From the above discussion it follows that love has a deeply
spiritual character in the letter to the Romans. The insights
developed by Waaijman’s analysis of Spirituality have been
helpful in enabling us to recognise various dynamics and
dimensions of love in the letter to the Romans. Love turns out
to be about the loving divine initiative coming to humanity
from outside itself. Love is to be found in the life-giving
touch of God that transforms humanity powerfully through
the Spirit to become as loving as God is. The love of God
sustains the believing community in its spiritual journey. It is
about an intimate, on-going mutuality that brings people to
display more fully the image of God that has been granted to
them as a gift in Christ’s self-giving action of love. In their
mutuality as lovers, God and humanity are one, so that, in
Waaijman’s words (2002:469), ‘each is the other and both are
one’. The lovers give themselves up to the other.
Love is about an existence in the Spirit, in faith, that is also
characterised by a loving existence in and for the world.
As such, love precludes an existence that is focused on
itself, but is rather about an inner disposition conformed
to Christ that brings about a life of openness, sensitivity
and care for others. Love reflects the loving image of God
and becomes like God in living a loving existence. Like the
outgoing love of God, human love for others is to be found
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in actions, in reaching out concretely. It is intensely
transformative in nature as it brings people, communities
and even enemies together in transformed relationships,
but especially brings them into the presence of God. To
love others is about loving God, or, even more, about
worshipping God.
Love ultimately functions on the very deepest level to let the
believing community rest and reside in the divine presence
and will. The peculiar nature of transformation in love is that
love prompts God and humanity to rest completely in each
other in the knowledge that their love is secure and
indestructible. Because of this, love displays joy in and
celebration of God.
Competing interests
The author declares that he has no financial or personal
relationships which may have inappropriately influenced
him in writing this article.
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